Bhubaneswar: Orissa’s steel and mines minister Raghunath Mohanty is faced with the most difficult task of his tenure—orchestrating smooth land acquisition for South Korean steel maker Posco, maintaining peace in the villages affected by it and responding to pressure from the Central government that wants to showcase the 12-million-tonne (mt) project as one of the successes of its foreign investment policy.
With the environment ministry giving its final clearance for the $12 billion plant in May, Mohanty, who was the minister for panchayati raj (local administration) and parliamentary affairs till 2009, now has the additional worry of not harming children who have joined the protest as the government’s bulldozers clear parts of the 4,004 acres in Jagatsinghpur district where villagers have for years treated the land as their own and survived on agriculture.
But the 56-year-old minister who grew up in the small town of Amarda Road in Orissa is undeterred. In an interview, he says the government’s original plan to give land to Posco will stay even if land acquisition takes time. Edited excerpts:
There’s talk that Posco’s competitors, foreign countries that want to sell steel to India, and political groups are funding the protest against Posco. Is this true?
It is just speculation.
Who is not letting the plant to be set up?
I think it is the common people because they are losing their land, their homes, their living places. Somebody may be behind it, but they are not coming out in the open.
What is the status of the land acquisition drive?
The total amount of land (to be acquired) is about 3,719 acres, and all of it will be acquired. Out of that, around 2,000 acres has already been acquired. Only 152 acres is private land. Only 613 families will be displaced.
Are Gobindpur and Dhinkia villages on government land?
Yes, it is a fact. That is forest and revenue land.
What is your strategy for relocating those people now that they are using children to prevent government authorities from entering their area?
The government is completely for peaceful industrialization. The district administration is discussing with the people of that area. Though they have encroached on government land, the government is ready to give compensation.
People living there do not seem to know about the relief and rehabilitation (R&R) package, and they do not trust anyone.
The government is trying its level best, and district administration is always ready to talk with the people. The R&R policy gives them electricity, TVs, telephones. If people had not trusted us, how would we have acquired 2,000 acres? Even from Dhinkia and Gobindpur, people have given written (letters) to the collectors that they will give their land and take government compensation. Work has already started where land has been acquired.
What is the number of people who will be displaced? Reports say it is 22,000.
Only 613 families will be displaced.
When will the land be given to Posco?
Already work on the boundary wall has started. (Orissa’s) Industrial Development Corporation is acquiring the land. After completion of land acquisition, it will be handed over to Posco.
Is there any time frame for this?
No. The government will acquire the land peacefully and smoothly. There is no question of forcible acquisition, so it might take time. But it doesn’t mean that the project will be stuck because 2,000 acres has been acquired.
Do you think you can bypass the villages that are opposing and give a smaller piece of land to Posco?
No, we cannot do that.
When will the renewed agreement with Posco be signed?
This month, July. The memorandum of understanding (MoU) was first signed in 2005 and will soon be renewed. Initially, the company suggested four stages of construction of 3 mt capacity. Now, Posco has submitted that the 12 mt plant will be completed in three phases, with a capacity of 4 mt per phase.
What about the iron-ore swap issue—how will the new MoU treat it?
When the MoU was first done in 2005, the clause said that there would be about 35% swapping (export of low-grade ore and the import of high grade ore for use in the plant). The government is now examining whether or not swapping will remain because now so far as the mines are concerned, a case is now in the Supreme Court.
Are you in favour of allowing Posco to export iron ore from India?
It is for the (Central) government to make a decision.
Would you say that protests in Gobindpur and Dhinkia pose the biggest challenge to the project?
No, there is no difficulty. It is a common phenomenon, not only in Orissa, but throughout our country, and throughout the world. It is the duty of the government to see the problems are solved peacefully and smoothly.
There’s also ArcelorMittal’s steel plant project. What is the time frame for land acquisition for this?
The land acquisition has been started for the 12 mt project. We still have to do the palli sabha (meeting of electorate of a revenue village). It has been completed in six villages by the district collector. In another seven or eight villages it will start. We still have to do this step by step.